Why Dowry is a Bad Thing

(No dowry posts or any posts for that matter last week. Apologies if you were keeping a watch out- I flatter myself. I’ve been having trouble sleeping, and an overload at work- which persists this week also. So this post shall be rushed and incoherent and pompous and Aym Gramd. Sorry. Things may improve next week.)

Okay. The prevailing wisdom is that dowry is a bad thing. But why?

Two reasons that I can think of.

The first is that huge dowry demands strain the finances of the brides’ parents, and could clobber their standard of living. (Ravikiran earlier pointed out over email that the bride herself benefits from the dowry being transferred to her new household.) We dislike the idea of one family transferring all its wealth to another family and getting nothing in the bargain.

The other reason is that the thought of brides and grooms as commodities to be bought and sold appalls our conscience. We are liberal enough to be repulsed at the thought of trading people.

Which is where the problem lies. Liberality goes only so deep and so broad in the Indian context. The vast majority of people are not liberal. The ones who are are not liberal enough to reject years of tradition.

Dowry is being kept alive by a lack of liberal values. Once those values spread dowry will go away. The problem is that values take bloody long to spread. Until that happens, the next best thing is the economic incentives I described here.

Next in the series: the origins of dowry.

Pork on an Industrial Scale

Via Instapundit, I found this Popular Mechanics story about a process to grow sheets of pork from stem cells.

You know where this is going to lead, don’t you? Eventually someone will figure out that if you can do it with pig cells, you can do it with human cells as well. And then we’re going to have our bright, Transmetropolitan-like future where cannibalism is chic and there are fast food chains dedicated to serving up choice cuts of human flesh.


On a more serious note, if this technology ever does get commercialised, it’ll be awesome. And not just for meat, but for vegetarian stuff as well. The concept of factory made flour or meat does sound disturbing, but the environmental advantages could be immense. Think of all the farm and ranch space you could turn over for forestry.

Where I Went Wrong

After all the comments and responses to the first three posts, this is a good time to touch upon the mistakes I’ve made while writing about dowry.

The first, most blatant mistake was to entangle dowry and arranged marriages. Paying dowry and forcing your daughter into an arranged marriage both arise out of the desire for cultural acceptance, but they’re still two separate things. So when I said that women from communities without a dowry tradition are worse off in the long run, I did it with the assumption that social acceptance would come only from arranged marriages, and rightfully got thulped by Nilu for it. There are lots of other ways to gain social acceptance- education, religiosity, and being cultured to name a few.

(Also, just as Nilu knows no Mylapore maamis who got married early, my data points were Delhi Mallus/ Iyengars/ Sardarnis who all had arranged marriages when they were 18-23. Serves me right for theorising based on anecdotal data.)

As for the deeper question of whether I’ve got my cause and effect mixed up, my position is that dowry is a consequence of inadequate financial systems and bad inheritance laws. Now, even though the financial system and inheritance laws have improved to the point that there’s no economic motivation for dowry, dowry persists as a custom because of cultural inertia. So the value of a marriage doesn’t really have a bearing on dowry any more.

Mistake number two was to loosely throw around the word elope as a catch-all. What I should have said was ‘the parents have an incentive to allow the girl to find someone for herself who won’t demand dowry’. Eloping is an extreme manifestation of that.

Mistake three was pointed out in Rashmi’s comment. It’s mostly a rant about market mechanisms, and Rashmi has either not read the post through or not understood it- but she does point out that I totally forgot that rising dowry demands also incentivise female foeticide and cutting down on education for women.

Fair enough. I was thinking about the incentives facing a family which hadn’t killed off their daughter, but then if I wanted to make a pretense of having a comprehensive series on dowry I should have mentioned that too. Mea culpa.

Three Counter Intuitive Corollaries

The last post on dowry throws up three corollaries which run contrary to received wisdom. Here they are:

  1. Women from communities which don’t have a tradition of dowry are worse off in the long run. In castes and subcastes with a dowry tradition, the girl and her parents have a financial incentive to delay marriage, or to elope with someone who doesn’t want dowry. But when the desire for social acceptance isn’t counterbalanced by the pain of dowry you’ll have more arranged marriages, at younger ages.
  2. Consumerism is a good thing. This is based on my point about all the stuff you can do with your money if your didn’t give it up as dowry. The next time you meet someone who moans about how dowry demands are increasing because of liberalisation and consumerism running rampant, ask them why it is that only the grooms’ families are consumerist, while all the brides’ families are saintly enough to forgo all the consuming they could do if they kept the dowry for themselves.
  3. Rising dowry demands are a good thing, because the higher the demand, the greater the incentive to say ‘Balls to social acceptance and tradition’. Crude oil at $75 a barrel may have hurt like hell, but it changed consumer behaviour. Hybrids became more popular and SUVs became less popular. Incentives matter.

Next up, I’ll talk about why dowry is a bad thing.

Visual Puns Are Good Too

Chilli in Mint:


Also, Chillie in Mint:

The real blame lies with every socialist government that amended the Constitution, infringing on property rights. And the answer lies in reinstating an individual’s fundamental right to private property—which was abolished in 1978—and restraining the government’s power of eminent domain.

Saving Face and Saving Money

Back to dowry. As I mentioned in this post, fifteen megarupees is now considered too low a price for the privilege of getting your daughter married to someone she’s never met. However, there’s evidently no shortage of people willing to cough up the market clearing price.

If you parked twenty megarupees in a fixed deposit, you’d get more than one and a half megarupees a year at current interest rates. But societal taboos and social standing seem to be valued much higher. If you pay some wanker to take your daughter off your hands, you lose money. But if you don’t, you lose face. As a collective society, we seem to put too much of a premium on face.

But I think it’s a waning trend. Here’s why:

  1. Remember the Nisha Sharma case? A few people had made disapproving noises about how she hadn’t walked out because the groom had asked for dowry, but because the groom had asked for too much dowry- ‘unreasonable demands’. They disapproved because they thought that any demand more than zero is unreasonable.
    But I think it’s fantastic. It shows that even if you are indoctrinated to put a value on societal pressures, you don’t put an infinite value on them.1 There is a point at which you’d rather have the money than the respect. And if grooms demand more than that, you’ll tell them to go stick their heads in a pig.
  2. Respect faces competition these days. In the bad old days, when all you could buy with your money was a Premier Padmini and a badly constructed house, the respect of your societal peers is valuable in comparison. Today, though, your money can buy much more. If gaining respect means losing out on a premium flat in Gurgaon, or a foreign education for your other children, or a vacation abroad, you’ll think twice about rushing to buy respect.
  3. The economic rationale is disappearing. If your daughter is supporting you instead of you supporting your daughter, paying somebody else to take her off your hands is a pretty stupid idea.2

So I’m optimistic. Not optimistic enough to think that dowry will vanish in the next twenty years, but enough to say that it’s on a downtrend.

By the way, the series isn’t over yet. Do stick around.

1 I realise that generalising from a sample of one is not sensible. Let’s say that the Nisha Sharma case refutes the assertion that social customs are completely immune to monetary incentives.
2 This point seems to contradict the rest of the post by assuming that marriage and dowry demands are driven by economics rather than cultural inertia. My personal, unverified hypothesis is that dowry had an economic rationale to begin with, acquired the cultural overtones later, and is now driven purely by tradition. However, even if culture forces parents to marry their girl off, economic reality will encourage them to at least push the age of marriage forward.

Two Rumours About Dowry

There’s this rumour making the rounds of the IIMB gossip circuit that one of the IIMB guy’s mother was approached by an IIMA girl’s mother; who offered the girl’s hand in marriage along with ten megarupees of dowry. The guy’s mother refused, on the grounds that the girls’ family were Punjabi baniyas, while they were UP baniyas. Or the other way around. Who gives a damn about the finer distinction between baniyas anyway?1

When I first heard about this story, I got enthu and started thinking about how one could use rejected dowry offers to estimate the monetary value of a religious/ regional/ caste/ subcaste barrier. My initial enthusiasm evaporated later on. It’s actually a very silly idea, because different people will have wildly differing valuations of a community barrier2. My parents, for example, are getting so disturbingly desperate for grandchildren that they would have a zero valuation. Other people might have an infinite valuation.

More importantly, the offer might not even have been rejected because of the subcaste difference. It’s possible that the guy simply thought the girl was irritating and couldn’t stand the thought of being married to her. Citing subcaste differences might have been a politer, more face-saving way of saying no than saying ‘I’m sorry, but she’s an irritating cow, and being married to her would drive me up the wall.’3

The second rumour is about this guy who joined my employer in the same batch of campus recruitment as me. The story goes that somebody with all the right caste and astrological details and what not offered their daughter and fifteen megarupees of dowry. The guy’s parents practically laughed in their faces at this low offer.

This is astounding. If we take only the guy’s pre-tax annual salary, fifteen megarupees is a valuation at a P/E ratio of approximately 19. And this was rejected. It looks like the market for grooms is as stretched as the market for securities these days.

So what’s a girl- and her parents- to do in these days of overheated valuations? That, dear reader, will be the subject of several upcoming posts. These two rumours have gotten me thinking about dowry as a concept, and there will be lots of blogging on it this week. Until then, do read these somewhat related links: For Love or Money I and For Love or Money II.

1: As is evident from the mother’s reactions, baniyas themselves do. I was asking a rhetorical question.
2: As any MBA will tell you, any valuation I would have calculated would have been wrong anyway.
3:Which is what I would have said. But then I don’t see the point of saving other peoples’ faces.